A lot of attention has been paid lately toward increasing diversity among faculty in universities across the country. However, studies show that Ph.D. researchers from underrepresented backgrounds tend to veer off the path toward professorship. While many factors influence career choices, early interventions and support can greatly improve opportunities for underrepresented minority, low-income and first-generation Ph.D. students to pursue an academic career.

Launched in November of 2020, the Path to the Professoriate (P2P) Program aims to do just that.

Built on learnings from the Berkeley Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty, the one-year program engages first-year Ph.D. students from underrepresented backgrounds in workshops and structured activities around illuminating the route to assistant professorship in their discipline and establishing and building a publication pipeline.

P2P participants
P2P participants Lillian Murphy, group mentor Nafisa Elgazali, Maura McDonagh, and Miguel Samano. Photo credit: Brittany Hosea-Small

This year’s diverse cohort of 98 first-year Ph.D. students represents over 50 colleges and departments at Berkeley.

“The purpose of P2P is to demystify what it means to get a Ph.D.,” explained Denzil Streete, Graduate Division Chief of Staff & Assistant Dean for Diversity. “What’s daunting about pursuing a Ph.D. is you rarely know what’s around the corner. So every little obstacle is perceived as an insurmountable mountain.”

Jonathan Pérez, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education and a member of this year’s cohort echoes the point. “One of the most challenging things about being a Ph.D. student is not knowing the unspoken rules.” Erik Herrera, a member of the 2020 cohort who returned this year as a group leader, adds, “There are a lot of unspoken things that are supposed to happen. And for someone who’s not very familiar, it can be overwhelming to figure out — like preparing a CV, which no one really tells you. So those small unspoken things, made explicit, are very helpful.”


Finding Community

In the vastness of the university and many departments, it may be hard for Ph.D. students to connect with peers of similar experiences or identities, whether Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, Indigeneous, etc. While aimed at supporting underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation students, there are no strict criteria to qualify for the program beyond being a first-year Ph.D. Streete points out that the program is designed to both facilitate the intellectual independence intrinsic in the path to a Ph.D. and also give students the sense of community they need to be successful.

Four P2P cohort members
Janyia Peters (2nd from left) with fellow P2P cohort members. Photo credit: Brittany Hosea-Small

Janiya Peters, a first-year Ph.D. student in the School of Information, noted that finding community is what drove her to join the program. Current 2021 cohort member Fernando Sanchez in the department of Middle Eastern and Islamic languages and cultures, explained why community is important. “The most valuable aspect so far has been hearing everyone else’s voice. Knowing you’re not alone, that the voices in your head aren’t just the voices in your head, but they’re in everyone else’s.”

Jesus Nazario, a second-year Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies returning to the program as a peer leader, underscored why community matters. “The P2P program is critical for historically marginalized students because it offers this collective knowledge production. We have unique insights and we activate them when we’re together,” he explained.


Creating a Roadmap for Success

Each semester of the year-long program is dedicated to a specific outcome. During the fall semester, program participants engage in workshops featuring tenured faculty members of color sharing their graduate student experiences and providing advice to program participants on navigating their doctoral programs.

Streete notes that because a student has the ability to be accepted into a Ph.D. program at Berkeley, it’s assumed that they are naturally adept at navigating the process leading to their doctoral degree: “Departments are often blind to the fact that UC Berkeley is a very big complicated institution and no one person or unit has all the answers.”

Activities require students to “reverse-engineer” their path to the professoriate by conducting informational interviews with tenured faculty members, assistant professors and senior graduate students in their discipline or at the type of institution where they aspire to be hired. Participants also meet monthly in small groups. By the end of the fall session participants will have created an individualized roadmap to the professoriate.

Diana Bautista, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the department of Molecular & Cell Biology has been a faculty participant in both cohorts, sharing her path to science and personal graduate experience as a first-generation college student and women of color. “When I first went to graduate school, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me — students or faculty,” she revealed. “Like many of our graduate students, I didn’t have any idea or role model for how to succeed and how to fit in.”

Bautista, who also chairs the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee within her department notes the benefits of the program go both ways: “Through my participation, I’ve gotten to meet more graduate students with very interesting and unique backgrounds. It’s empowering for me as well to be part of the program.”


Combatting Imposter Syndrome and Humanizing the Experience

Given the strong correlation between being accepted into the professoriate and publishing, spring semester has students work on building an individualized blueprint for publishing. Workshops in the spring focus on productivity and explore issues of anxiety with writing, imposter syndrome, and writing to multiple audiences. Students will also participate in a writing retreat. A spring panel featuring tenured faculty of color and journal editors explore successful approaches to academic publishing. “If you have a plan you’re less likely to worry about whether you’re on the right track compared to your peers in terms of publications,” explained Dr. Streete.

Nov. 5 P2P reception
P2P participants gathered on November 5, 2021 at the Alumni House for food, drinks, and camaraderie. Photo credit: Brittany Hosea-Small

Throughout the program, small cohorts of about eight students, led by a second-year Ph.D. from the previous year’s P2P cohort, meet regularly, giving students the opportunity to get to know each other as people in a more intimate context, share their experiences and challenges, and provide ideas, feedback, and support to each other as they navigate their doctoral journey. “It’s about humanizing the experience,” noted Streete. Group leaders also maintain office hours for individualized support. Of the 35 Ph.D.s in the inaugural 2020 cohort, eleven are currently participating as group leaders this year.

As a peer leader, Jesus Nazario offers a space for community conversation to a group of 10 current P2P students. “I was inspired to become a leader because I want to give back. For me, the program was fundamental to my first year.” He continued, “The one piece of advice I’d give current P2P cohort members is to be patient with yourselves. I think we want to get everything figured out our first year. And there are certain things we will figure out, but there are certain things where we just have to essentially trust in the process, while at the same time asking really important questions. Establishing that foundation is really critical.”


Continuing the Journey

Along with P2P, the larger umbrella of URM grad student support initiatives includes a proposed Inclusive Excellence Hub, a 2-story building next to campus. Still in the planning and approval stage, with donor support, the Hub promises to be the first graduate student campus-wide community hub exclusively dedicated to increasing academic excellence through diversity and belonging at Berkeley.

Streete emphasizes the close link between the P2P program and the Hub — a relaxed congenial continuation space for sharing ongoing learnings and experiences: “The Hub will provide the mechanism that can keep those P2P cohort groups together in a semi-formal way, so they’re not completely reliant on doing it themselves.”

Mitzia Martinez and
P2P cohort mentors Mitzia Martinez and Isaac Alejandro Félix. Photo credit: Brittany Hosea-Small

Mitzia Martinez is a second-year Ph.D. in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program who returned this year as a P2P mentor. She exemplifies the need for initiatives like P2P and the Inclusive Excellence Hub that acknowledge the unique experiences of URM graduate students.

“What I found most valuable was being able to connect with students of color outside of my cohort, and be in community with first-generation undocumented, Black, brown Latinx students who were also navigating graduate school for the first time.”

Asked for one piece of advice for first-year Ph.D. students, she offers, “Be authentically yourself. A lot of us may not fit the traditional student profile. We come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we’re low income, we’re Black or Latinx, we’re first-generation. We’re told we have to put in a certain profile to represent our social group, but being true to who you are, why you came to a program, why you came to grad school will get you far. Just be authentic and be yourself no matter what that means to you.”